Shonni Enelow on Acting

Ruby Dee in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989)

Chances are, the fact that this summer marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing hasn’t escaped you. A new 4K digital restoration opened in theaters across the country this weekend, and on Sunday, Lee hosted a free block party that jammed Brooklyn’s Stuyvesant Avenue with revelers. Our new edition of the film, in which racial tensions along that street boil over on the hottest day of the year, will be out on July 23.

Most of the writing about this summer-long celebration has focused on the Do the Right Thing as a sociopolitical event. This is the movie that Barack and Michelle Obama saw on their first date, the movie that, according to early “racist reviews,” as Lee has recently called them, would “spark riots.” In the new issue of Film Comment, Shonni Enelow approaches the film from a different, and frankly at this point, refreshing angle. “Do the Right Thing is an anthology of performance styles,” presenting “a collage of theatrical genres, each character or group of characters with their distinct theatrical mode,” she writes.

Enelow, the author of Method Acting and Its Discontents: On American Psycho-Drama, walks us through the showcase: “Running through the episodes that open the film, we move from the smooth radio-voice tones of Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), the deejay; to the evangelical street hawking of Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith); to the mid-century realism of Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), with their Arthur Miller–esque drama of white, ethnic, lower-middle-class disillusionment; to the old-fashioned, vaudeville-like conflict of Da Mayor and Mother Sister, who play out their sparring to a scoring of antebellum strings.”

These last two characters are played, of course, by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, “actors, writers, organizers, and activists widely referred to as the ‘first couple of the Civil Rights Movement,’” and it’s their final moments in Do the Right Thing that “form a response—not a resolution—to racist violence and black oppression, one that symbolically holds not only the continuously resonating core of Lee’s film but also the resonance of Dee and Davis’s own politics.”

In 2015, Enelow contributed to a Reverse Shot symposium in which writers were asked to “make a convincing and compelling claim that the ‘real’ author of a particular film is not necessarily its director.” Opening her piece on a 2014 film directed by Olivier Assayas, Enelow cut straight to the chase: “Juliette Binoche deserves authorial credit for Clouds of Sils Maria—not only because her performance rivets the film, captivating even scenes in which she cedes the floor to her fellow actors, and not only because by all accounts the film was partially her idea. We should credit Binoche as the true author because this, in fact, is what the film itself concludes.”

Editors Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert credit this essay as a significant inspiration behind Reverse Shot’s new and currently ongoing symposium, Binoche Auteur. The editors argue that, “as a formidable presence in daring world cinema from many of our greatest directors, including Assayas, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Kiarostami, Binoche has helped create a through-line in otherwise disparate works for generations of cinephiles.”

So far, the symposium features Ela Bittencourt on High Life (Claire Denis, 2018), Chris Wisniewski on Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou, 2007), and Enelow on Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000). After writing about how “Binoche’s performance both exposes and recalibrates” questions raised by a crucial scene in Code Unknown in which her character is harassed on the Paris Métro, Enelow turns to what we might think of as Binoche’s oeuvre: “An important element of Binoche’s aesthetic as an actor, visible throughout her work, is a kind of self-aware narcissism: emotional largesse coupled with gestural and affective recursiveness that subtly points to itself. This slight recoil inside the affective approach is close to something that very beautiful women develop to let people know that they know the effect their beauty has: on some actors, it comes across as embarrassment, which can itself be embarrassing; with Binoche, it feels like self-knowledge.”

More Enelow? At her own site, she’s listed links to more of her writing for Film Comment and Reverse Shot as well as a few pieces she’s written for the Current.

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